Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


43rd Annual Convention; Denver, CO; 2017

Event Details

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Symposium #37
Behavior Through an Evolutionary Lens
Saturday, May 27, 2017
10:00 AM–11:50 AM
Hyatt Regency, Centennial Ballroom F/G
Area: PCH/VRB; Domain: Theory
Chair: Carsta Simon (Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway)
Discussant: William M. Baum (University of California, Davis)
Abstract: The symposium examines the usefulness of Darwinian selection in understanding selection of behavior during ontogeny. To discuss what constitutes ontological and epistemologically sound units of analysis, verbal behavior in conversations is suggested to be investigated through a selectionist lens. Moreover, the historic resistance to natural selection inspires a line of argument by which psychologists may be induced to scientifically investigate behavior. However, are evolutionary ideas actually central to understanding behavior or has their influence been exaggerated and they constitute more of a distraction? We can observe that operant behavior is the result of a feedback function between activities and environment but what makes us confident that selection by consequences explains that fact? The analogy between natural selection and operant conditioning faces a challenge if one cannot point to a response, which constitutes the descendent of another response. Is an assumption of hypothetical events as the unit of selection the solution; and if not, does it nevertheless make sense to talk about responses’ fitness? Does E. Sober’s distinction between selection of and selection for have an analogy in operant selection? By introducing those questions, the symposium illuminates benefits and challenges characterizing the relation of ontogenetic and phylogenetic causes of behavior.
Instruction Level: Intermediate
Keyword(s): Darwinism, Evolution, History, Selection

A Selectionist View of Verbal Behavior

CARSTA SIMON (Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway)

Speech is a natural event that comes down to sounds that affect the behavior of conspecifics. Skinner (1957) proposed to analyze verbal commerce by the same means as other behavior. A supposition of momentary stimuli, discrete behavior and contiguous consequences forms the base for his categorization of “mands”, “tacts”, “echoics” and other verbal operants. How can an analysis of verbal behavior go beyond this ontologically and epistemologically questionable abstraction of continuous speech into momentary events? A molar, selectionist approach to verbal behavior treats larger verbal episodes as wholes, induced by a context and correlating with consequences. First, the talk debates theoretical reasons to place verbal behavior in an evolutionary framework by viewing it as shaped by its consequences, through a person’s lifetime and through interactions with the environment across many generations of natural selection. Second, the talk exemplifies two experimental procedures treating verbal behavior as allocation of time. Specifically, the experiments investigate effects of the “listener’s” responses on more extended verbal episodes and matching in conversations.

Feedback is a Fact, but Selection is a Theory
TERRY SMITH (Edinboro University of Pennsylvania)
Abstract: The evolutionary perspective on the ontogeny of behavior emphasizes the fact that operant behavior is the result of a feedback function between behavior and environment. When reinforcement is contingent upon a certain type of response, this has a powerful effect upon the ontogeny of behavior. This is an easily observed fact. What is not however easily observed is the claim that selection by consequences explains this fact. Borrowing terms introduced by philosopher of biology, Elliott Sober, one could say that contingencies of reinforcement clearly select for certain types of responses, but this does not imply there is selection of anything. But there must be selection of something if selection is to explain the course of behavior. For various reasons, behavior itself does not offer a good candidate for the object of selection. Theories that posit hypothetical entities to serve as the objects of selection, however, are able to address this challenge and to propose a coherent interpretation of the ontogeny of behavior.

CANCELED: The Experimental Analysis of Behavior: More Important Than Evolutionary Speculations

JOHN C. MALONE (University of Tennessee)

"Damn Darwin. The Neo-Darwinians and Neo-Lamarckians, etc. are in a worse hole than psychologists--!" That was John B. Watson's opinion expressed in a letter to Robert Yerkes in 1909. The usefulness of evolutionary ideas in understanding psychology had been debated long before Darwin and Wallace announced their findings in 1859. In fact, evolutionary theories were common and considered sophomoric, so their reports received little notice. But all that changed as skilled promotors like Huxley, Spencer, Butler, and James argued (often in excess) for evolution as the key to understanding thought and action, an argument continued during the Twentieth Century by Peirce, Dewey, and many others. The popularity of evolutionary ideas steadily increased and when the 200th anniversary of Darwins birth was celebrated in 2009, countless symposia, festivals, and celebratory lectures occurred worldwide. Lip service aside, his actual influence has been exaggerated and evolutionary ideas play a negligible part in modern biology and in psychology, just as do Newtons laws of mechanics, the Pythagorean Theorem, and the periodic table. The principles of TEAB and radical behaviorism reveal so much about both our public and private behavior that evolutionary ideas often only constitute a distraction.

There Are No Behavioral Rabbits in the Ontogenic Precambrian
WILLIAM DAVID STAHLMAN (University of Mary Washington)
Abstract: A primary goal of any science is to accurately and, as simply as is possible, describe the phenomena within its purview. In physics, only a small handful of variables is necessary to accurately describe the Universe. In biology, evolution by natural selection is the most elegant explanation for the origins of species and the complexity of the biosphere. Though there remains vigorous discussion amongst researchers in both disciplines, there is little central controversy regarding each of these positions. Researchers of organismal behavior have not enjoyed such unanimity. In psychology, competing models, theories, and hypothetical constructs continue to hold the floor, and there remains staunch opposition to the position that behavior is worth investigating as a subject unto itself. Behavior analysis, on the other hand, is a science that resembles other successful sciences in both parsimony and its defining organizing principle. I dispute that the mutual existence of psychology and behavior analysis is stable in the long-term. Inspired by historic opposition to Darwinian theory, I suggest a line of argument by which psychologists may again be brought to consider positively the scientific investigation of behavior.



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